Astral Weeks ’68: Ryan H. Walsh uncovers Van Morrison’s long-lost Boston

 
 

One can never really know if one is living through an extraordinary time; likewise, the moments when lasting works of influential art are created seldom seem of consequence until after the moment has passed. It all boils down to the alchemy of true change: To become something else requires risk of the unknown, a leap into the void, hoping to be born again on the other side of transformation.

In 1968, an Irish pop singer named Van Morrison followed up the success of his 1967 quasi-hit single “Brown Eyed Girl” with a strange and emotionally raw record called Astral Weeks; its release heralded a new emotional honesty in popular music, as its mesmeric musings laid bare Morrison’s stoned awe at the wonder of life, love, and the universe.

As it so happens, the genesis of the album, the point when Van Morrison cracked open his cosmic skull, was during a half-year period when he was living with his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the songs and the record are an interwoven byproduct of connections Morrison made deep within the denizens of Boston’s thriving musical community. If 1968 would live in infamy as a flexpoint for world culture, it was also a time when Boston’s artistic community was unconsciously getting in touch with its ancient traditions of transcendence and communalism. It’s a complicated web, knit with the legacies of hundreds of people over numerous decades — and somehow, heroically, it all comes together in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, a fascinating and exhaustively researched new book by local author and musician Ryan H. Walsh.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (no relation) has officially declared today (March 6) as “Astral Weeks Day” in the city, and tonight, Ryan H. Walsh is at Brookline Booksmith celebrating the book’s release with a discussion with Carly Carioli, the former Boston Magazine editor who assigned the original article that inspired Walsh’s endeavor. We recently caught up with the author to discuss the book, Morrison’s time in Boston, and the various characters that helped shape the story.

Daniel Brockman: Ok, so let’s talk about 1968; because nobody ever talks about Boston in 1968! I can tell you all about what New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Mexico City, etc. were like 50 years ago, but not Boston. What’s up with that, how come late-’60s Boston culture is so forgotten?

Ryan H. Walsh: It was in some ways instantly forgotten, but if you were around that year and you were a music fan — I mean, I talked to this guy who was at the first Velvet Underground show in New Jersey, and he actually moved to Boston because he heard about the Boston sound hype and he was sure it was going to be the new San Francisco! When he told me that I was like “Really?” and he was like “Yeah dude — I fell for it.” In the moment, there was definitely a big thing that people knew about outside of Boston. But yeah, in terms of the late-’60s counter-cultural myth built around cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, it’s interesting how Boston didn’t really become part of that myth.

It’s fascinating that you tie Van Morrison into all of this, because he, like Boston, seems kind of outside of the mythology of the ’60s. When you spoke to people associated with Astral Weeks, did you get the sense that they knew that they were part of something that would be memorable or legendary?

It’s totally mixed; I mean, for most of them, they saw it as “Ok, here’s this guy, he’s in town, he seems to have a shitty contract that’s connected to the mob.” Like, John [Payne], the flute player, was like “I’m just interested in jazz, but I guess I’ll do this, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ was kind of cool.” And the drummer was like “This is teeny-bopper shit but I’ll do it I guess.” None of them had any inkling that this guy was going to become the Van Morrison we all know of today!

That spring and summer, Van went through three different lineups of Boston musicians, except for Tom [Kielbania], the bassist; until the very end, it’s pretty ramshackle, just shitshows. People are doing drugs; Van is arguing with promoters onstage about money; people have agendas in the band, like “I want this to be a flipped-out electric band” — this kid [John] Sheldon was trying to turn the band into The Who. Sheldon was telling me that it was just on the edge of madness the whole summer, they got in an accident on the highway on the way back from a Cape Cod show. It was just kind of ridiculous!

Did you attempt to talk to Van Morrison?

I talked to every single living person who worked on Astral Weeks; I tried to talk to Van. I think it would have been interesting, but I’m not sure it would have been helpful. I mean, I think he’s such a contrarian that he’d probably, you know, yell at me or try to rip apart my thesis for the book. Which he was certainly welcome to do! But, I dunno — he hates journalists, he has a weird thing about Astral Weeks in particular. So yeah, I didn’t talk to him. I wonder if he’ll read it?

Yeah, it’s like rock and roll really rewards difficult personalities, but compared to some of his contemporaries — Dylan, Lou Reed, etc. — in a sense Van Morrison’s contrarianism crossed a line and almost caused him to get in his own way.

Totally. I mean, his then-wife, Janet Planet, who has every reason to be the most upset with him, even she had to admit in our interview: “Listen, that stubbornness is also what pushes him beyond ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’” Because Bert Berns wanted to just keep cranking out three-minute hits out of this guy, but that stubbornness led him to Astral Weeks.

When I talked to [Astral Weeks producer] Lewis Merenstein, he remembered how he was and he was like “Van is this beautiful poet, he shouldn’t have all this hate in his heart.” And that was heartbreaking to hear.

The difference between Van Morrison, the pop singer for Them and “Brown Eyed Girl”, and Van Morrison the mystic poet of Astral Weeks is only really a matter of months on a calendar; what do you think “happened” to him, how did he come up with the transformation of his music and art?

Well, it’s fascinating — he was really only in Boston for about seven months, and during that time, he kind of came up with the idea to change from electric to acoustic. That was really the giant change that resulted with Astral Weeks. John Sheldon claims that it’s because Van had a dream that there were no more electric instruments; right after that, he kicks out the drummer, switches everyone to acoustic instruments. But then another band member told me that they went acoustic just because an amp broke!

When you look at Van’s early Bang singles, “T.B Sheets” is the real precursor to Astral Weeks. And in fact, “T.B. Sheets” is kind of this long painful poetic circular song, and that’s the one moment on the Bang sessions where, according to the engineer, Bert just finally let Van do what he wanted to do. He does this giant emotional thing, and he’s just in a heap on the floor after he finished that take. So there’s an indication that he wanted to push toward that kind of song before he came to Boston. But really though, Boston is where he first started to actually sound the way he would, eventually, on Astral Weeks.

Well, personally on my own side of the coin, with regards to music and creativity, I’m a big fan of happenstance, trusting in your own subconscious. I found all sorts of quotes where Morrison talks about, you know, how these songs just go through him, he doesn’t write them.

One thing that your book highlights is the fact that the mob features heavily in Morrison’s early career; escaping the mob partly explains what he was doing in Boston in 1968 in the first place! It really is fascinating how involved organized crime was with popular entertainment in the ’60s, and with rock and roll specifically. What do you think the attraction of popular music was for the mob at the time?

Well, I think it made it easy to launder their entertainment money, and it was probably kind of fun. You need entertainment at your clubs when you are hanging out with your fellow associates, right?

I guess that popular entertainment and culture always skirts with criminality and immorality in order to keep its edge.

Right — but the other ingredient there is desperation. The potential superstar is desperate, and when you’ve got a desperate person, they will enter into deals that a normal person would probably not enter into. For example, I spoke to one of the Yakus brothers that ran Ace Recording Studio, and he was like “We were right near the Combat Zone, all these bookies and pimps would come in with their girl. And the girl has written a poem, we would set it to music, record it, and then they’d have this vanity single that their girl had made. And the problem was that the song sucked, and when it wasn’t a hit, they’d threaten to kill us!”

Was Van Morrison desperate to make it at this time?

Yes. I mean, he’s so stubborn and wants to do it his way, but he also wants to make money. And at a certain point he’s grabbing Joe Smith from Warner Brothers Records by the neck and demanding a number one hit. So it’s a total contradiction there, he totally wants a hit, but he also wants to make art rock.

Well, it seems like he just happened to be doing what he was doing at the one point in history where he could do that.

Indeed! To put it into context, imagine if there were, I dunno, a collage track like “Revolution #9” on Taylor Swift’s new album. Because that’s what we’re talking about — the biggest hit makers were allowed to get weird as hell, and they were doing it.

Astral Weeks is a really strange-sounding album; at times it almost sounds like the people making it don’t know what they’re doing, or are really going out on a limb, musically, sonically. You talked to everyone associated with this album; did they think, when they were making Astral Weeks, “Wow, this album is really weird”?

Well, by the time they recorded the actual record in New York, they brought in these experienced jazz musicians, guys who’ve just been recording commercial jingles all day long! The guitarist was doing a Noxzema commercial right before Astral Weeks. These guys were into it, but it was also just another gig. Which is crazy because it sounds so heartfelt and emotional and true. It’s a hard thing to understand, like can that sort of thing be faked or improvised?

Tracking what happened six months before the recording seemed like an interesting way to explain the album; because normally with a classic record, you’ve got all these storyline beats, like “These guys have been together for a while, they’re fighting about this or that,” and with the actual recording of Astral Weeks, there’s none of that. So what was revelatory to me was that the making of the album was so unusual.

Yeah, I mean the album isn’t really by a band in the generally understood sense.

Not in the least.

It’s strange because there’s no standard evolution: Van Morrison hired and fired a bunch of people, and then the album is just kind of when “record” happened to have been hit.

Well, you have to give a lot of credit to the producer, Lewis Merenstein; he picked the band, he picked the songs, he picked the order! And he rejected songs like “Moondance,” which was ready to go. He picked out Side A and Side B, he was in charge of the structure of the thing. It was truly a collaboration between a band, a producer, a songwriter, a fired band, and even Van’s wife — she was collating the demos into binders with lyrics and chords. It’s this cool kind of motley crew family affair that really comes together by accident, and only really took a couple of afternoons and a couple of evenings.

Courtesy of the David Bieber Archives: Original poster for the Van Morrison Controversy’s appearance at the Catacombs, August 9–10, 1968. At this subterranean club, Morrison would first perform in the style that would define ‘Astral Weeks.’

Boston has a complicated history with rock and roll, which you document in such incredible detail; it seems to me that Boston’s cultural history is just a constant pendulum, with things happening until they get crazy, then there’s a massive clampdown, and then slowly the next wave of crazy builds. It seems like for many people, it’s possible to come to Boston only to have just missed the party.

Right. By ‘68, the Tea Party was getting away with what they were doing because the owner pitched it to the city as “I’m just throwing some dances for the kids to keep them off the street.” But at this point, in large venues like Boston Garden, rock and roll concerts are still banned by the city censor, this uptight weirdo named Richard Sinnott, and he’s like in charge of, if you are booking the Garden, figuring out if you’re rock and roll or not. I found this great quote of his where he was like “Some people say the Beach Boys are rock and roll; I don’t know though, they sound a little folky to me.” It’s just so weird, like this guy sitting around listening to the Beach Boys trying to figure out if they’re rock to determine if they’ll get banned or not. It’s insane.

In doing all this research on Van Morrison’s time in Boston, what’s your take on his creative process, and place and time and serendipity versus conscious choice? How much of what he did was with intent versus that which was just happenstance, especially with the creation of Astral Weeks?

Well, personally on my own side of the coin, with regards to music and creativity, I’m a big fan of happenstance, trusting in your own subconscious. I found all sorts of quotes where Morrison talks about, you know, how these songs just go through him, he doesn’t write them. So then I kind of got into this whole thing about how Boston once was this mecca of spiritualism a hundred years prior, how the city was rife with all these people who could help you talk to the dead. Really spooky stuff, just this whole phenomenon people having spirits speak through them. To be honest, it was a real surprise learning about that. I had no inkling of that about my own city.

But again, with Van Morrison, it’s all a contradiction: He wants the sole credit for everything he did, but he also wants to say that he didn’t write the stuff, it was kind of channeled. So it’s like he’s going for two different things at the same time — and it’s that thing where it’s like “Do you want art or do you want a number one hit?”

Yeah, it’s definitely not a coincidence that you have artists claiming to be channeling spirits when creating albums at the same time that you have this proliferation of intentional communities and cult leaders; it’s kind of like a large part of the society was claiming spiritual inevitability for what was being created and done.

I got really interested in Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community; they were an intentional community, and they’re still around, they still own all those houses and they’re still together. What indicated that they were a story that I’d want to explore is that I found this old Globe profile on the community where they were asked “What’s your intent?” and one of the members said “we’re here to create the most beautiful music the world has ever heard.” And I was like “Wow, that was killer!” I mean, if you have to pick a reason for your commune to exist, that’s pretty bad-ass. And in a lot of ways the book details the story of how far they drift away from that over the years. Because they really did start with an incredible musical pedigree.

Yeah, that whole part of the book is a really great look at a lesser known chapter of Boston music history.

What surprised me with so many of these stories is that, you know, I have my interests, and I’ve always lived here, and these stories — someone should have been talking about them! You could say that I’ve been hanging out with the wrong people but I don’t think so. I think these stories have been a little bit lost, over the years. People were there, over the years, but I mean — how many of these stories did you know about?

Not many! A lot of it really is a secret history, as you say. And man, this stuff, these people, from 1968, this is 50 years old, so there’s not a lot of time left to talk to these people before, you know, everyone’s dead and it’s too late.

That’s some real talk right there; I mean, a couple of people I talked to, it was their last interview, they died soon after. So I don’t take that stuff lightly, I tried to do an honorable job and figure out the truth of what was going on.

‘ASTRAL WEEKS: A SECRET HISTORY OF 1968’ BOOK LAUNCH AND Q&A, WITH RYAN H. WALSH AND CARLY CARIOLI :: Tuesday, March 6 at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St. in Brookline, MA :: 7 p.m., all ages, no cover :: Booksmith event page :: Facebook event page :: ‘Astral Weeks’ home page :: Featured photo by Marissa Nadler